The Dark Side
of Creativity
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 2/9/15

Legions of musicians, writers, painters and other artists have battled depression and other serious mental illnesses, taking a journey through darkness from which many never return. While the legacies of Vincent van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, cult musician Daniel Johnston and more have inspired the romantic notion that madness fuels creativity, the lives of these artists also communicate harsh truths about mental instability and its common bend toward self-destruction.

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James Taylor  (b. 1948 | American musician and songwriter)
to  The Devil and Daniel Johnston  (Jeff Feuerzeig (dir.) | film | 2005)

Listeners have long speculated about hidden meanings in “Fire and Rain” (1970), James Taylor’s melodic ode to depression and drug addiction. “Fire” is said to be a reference to electroconvulsive therapy; “rain” to therapeutically administered cold showers; “Suzanne” to a lover killed in a plane crash. What has never been in dispute is that Taylor, despite his internal struggles, retains exquisite mastery of his craft, from the opening lines lamenting a friend’s suicide (“Just yesterday morning, they let me know you were gone”) to the plaintive finish (“I always thought that I’d see you again”).

The Devil and Daniel Johnston documents the life of singer-songwriter and artist Daniel Johnston (b. 1961), who has bipolar disorder. The story of this now middle-aged man cared for by his elderly parents is a heart-wrenching account of how cruelly mental illness can dampen life’s promise. Whereas Taylor, personally and musically, has transcended his mental turmoil, Johnston’s illness and his art seem intertwined. Kurt Cobain, no stranger to inner demons, considered Johnston the “greatest living songwriter.” Yet it is impossible to know whether Johnston would have gained such acclaim had he been a perfectly sane man producing his simple cartoons and catchy tunes.

James Taylor  (b. 1948 | American musician and songwriter)
to  Sylvia Plath  (1932–1963 | American writer)

Poet and novelist Sylvia Plath and songwriter James Taylor were treated as teenagers at McLean Hospital, a private mental institution in Belmont, Massachusetts. Taylor writes about McLean in “Knocking ’Round the Zoo”: “There’s bars on all the windows and they’re counting up the spoons / And if I’m feeling edgy there’s a chick who’s paid to be my slave / But she’ll hit me with a needle if she thinks I’m trying to misbehave.” Plath chronicles a young woman’s descent into depression and her stay at a hospital very much like McLean with deft observation and humor in her roman à clef, The Bell Jar, published a month before her suicide in 1963.

Many other well-known artists have spent time at McLean, including musicians Ray Charles and Marianne Faithfull and poets Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell. In her memoir Girl, Interrupted (1993), which recounts her 18-month stay at McLean, Susanna Kaysen asks, echoing an age-old question, “Did the hospital specialize in poets and singers, or was it that poets and singers specialized in madness?” Psychologist James C. Kaufman answered that question in 2001, dubbing what he called a greater tendency toward mental illness in female poets the “Sylvia Plath effect.”

Sylvia Plath  (1932–1963 | American writer)
to  Diane Arbus  (1923–1971 | American photographer)

Sylvia Plath’s writings are intensely personal, filled with rage and despair, good-humored self-deprecation and keen observation. The poet suffered from crippling depressions that precipitated several breakdowns, the first when she was a college student. Diane Arbus, best known for her penetrating portrait photography, was subject to mood swings, explaining simply, “I go up and down a lot.” Of the depressive episodes, she wrote, “Energy, some special kind of energy, just leaks out and I am left lacking the confidence even to cross the street.”

Both women, until they ended their lives by suicide, found solace in their art. Plath captures the pleasure of the writer’s craft when she writes in The Bell Jar, “Let me live, love and say it well in good sentences.” In her journals she divulged how writing sustained her—and in retrospect the words are chilling: “Perhaps some day I’ll crawl back home, beaten, defeated. But not as long as I can make stories out of my heartbreak, beauty out of sorrow.” Diane Arbus also wrote of her work with hope: “I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favorite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”

Diane Arbus  (1923–1971 | American photographer)
to  Vincent van Gogh  (1853–1890 | Dutch painter)

Does mental instability somehow enable acute perception? Diane Arbus’s direct frontal portraits provide an intense and unique framing of the human experience. Her work treats humanely those people often on the fringes of society—giants, dwarfs, transvestites—and, conversely, reveals the freakishness in ordinary people. In Jewish Giant, a huge man towers over his parents in their living room, but it’s not just the title subject who captures the eye. Arbus pointed out, “You know how every mother has nightmares when she’s pregnant that her baby will be born a monster? I think I got that in the mother’s face.”

Portraits, including those he painted of himself when he didn’t have a model, are among the most acclaimed works by Vincent van Gogh. His Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which immortalizes the physician who cared for the artist in the months just before his suicide, sold in 1990 for $82.5 million, then the highest price paid for a painting at auction. Van Gogh once said portraits were “the only thing in painting that excites me to the depths of my soul”; he wished to “paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize.”

Vincent van Gogh  (1853–1890 | Dutch painter)
to  Virginia Woolf  (1882–1941 | English writer)

“I did not have to go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness and extreme loneliness,” Vincent van Gogh wrote to his siblings in July 1890 from Auvers-sur-Oise, where he went for treatment for poor physical and mental health. Yet, he added, “these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.” Van Gogh’s descent into madness, which ended in suicide later that month, seemed also to stimulate his creative expression.

Virginia Woolf wrote parts of Mrs. Dalloway while confined to a house outside London after a violent manic-depressive episode. The narrative follows an ordinary woman through an unremarkable day, though the novel is also, as Woolf described it, a “study of insanity and suicide; the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side.” Evocations of the everyday—“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself”—are interspersed with dark musings, such as, “She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” Woolf’s masterful novel is one of the first fictional depictions of mental illness, to which Woolf, like van Gogh, succumbed.

Darkness Visible  (William Styron | book | 1990)
to  Virginia Woolf  (1882–1941 | English writer)

Darkness Visible, William Styron’s account of his descent into debilitating depression and eventual recovery, was the author’s last major work. Though Styron (1925–2006) never again wrote novels of the magnitude of The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979), his frank memoir was a commercial and critical success that gave voice to those silenced by depression. “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it,” he wrote. “The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.”

Styron quotes the suicide note of Italian writer Cesare Pavese, which addressed the matter with finality: “No more words. An act. I’ll never write again.” Leonard Woolf, husband of Virginia, wrote that during bouts of mania his wife “became completely incoherent” and spoke “a mere jumble of dissociated words.” To Virginia, conversely, writing was a life raft: “The only way I keep afloat is by working. Directly I stop working I feel that I am sinking down, down.” Woolf drowned herself when illness revisited; she wrote to Leonard in parting, “I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”

Darkness Visible  (William Styron | book | 1990)
to  Sylvia Plath  (1932–1963 | American writer)

“Despite depression’s eclectic reach, it has been demonstrated with fair convincingness that artistic types...are particularly vulnerable to the disorder,” William Styron wrote in Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. Many of these sufferers have articulately chronicled the experience. Styron quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost to capture depression’s essence (“No light; but rather darkness visible / Served only to discover sights of woe”) and suggests that the “manic wheeling stars of van Gogh are the precursors of the artist’s plunge into dementia and the extinction of self”—an all-too-common nadir.

Sylvia Plath described the experience of profound depression in her novel, The Bell Jar: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” More searingly, she wrote of failed suicide attempts in the poems “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” published posthumously in Ariel (1965). In “Lady Lazarus” Plath said of suicide, “I guess you could say I’ve a call.” Months after writing those words, at age 30, she heeded the call.

Styron emerged from his depression, invoking the last lines of Dante’s Inferno to describe his recovery: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.”